How politics shattered farmers’ potato dream

The entrance to Midlands Limited in Nyandarua County on August 24, 2020.

Photo credit: Dennis Onsongo | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • The warehouse, with a processing capacity of about 6,000 tonnes of potatoes, has now been abandoned.
  • It all started in the 1980s when a group of about 60 professionals came together to form Midlands Limited.
  • Interference from some powerful individuals at the national and county levels led to the collapse of the project.

The huge cold warehouse engulfed by bushes is what remains of a multibillion-shilling agro-processing plant in Nyandarua County.

The warehouse, with a processing capacity of about 6,000 tonnes of potatoes, under controlled temperatures, has now been abandoned – and is slowly rotting away, thanks to politics.

It was supposed to address Nyandarua’s problem of excess produce and act as the county’s value addition centre.

“We had all the hope in the world, but we don’t know what the future holds for us. Wastage continues to be reported whenever there is a glut,” Mr Danson Maina, one of the farmers who bought shares in the plant, says.

It all started in the 1980s when a group of about 60 professionals in the county came together to form Midlands Limited. They believed that the agro-processing and storage facility would help farmers from the area and neighbouring counties avoid post-harvest losses.

Value addition

The facility, valued at about Sh8 billion, was also meant to provide a stable market and aid in value addition.

But while the company had about 3,000 shareholders strewn across all the five constituencies in the county, it was soon caught up in local politics and the entire dream went up in smoke.

Mr Junghae Wainaina, the Midlands Limited chairman, says between 1987 and 2002, the company was basically in limbo.

It was not until President Mwai Kibaki came to power that the shareholders decided to kick-start the project. The ground-breaking ceremony was done by then Agriculture minister Kipruto arap Kirwa and, thereafter the construction of the company on a 25-acre land parcel in Njabini was launched.

When it started operations in 2004, the price of a share went for Sh100. Kinangop was allocated 1,216 shares, Kipipiri (385), Ol Kalou (296), Ol Joro Orok (301), and Ndaragwa 367 shares.

The other 182 shares went to farmers outside Nyandarua, while two shares were allocated to foreigners.

Untapped potential

Nyandarua is a rich county with untapped agricultural potential. Because of poor infrastructure, it has not yet developed industries around potato, pyrethrum, horticulture and vegetable farming.

While Midlands was supposed to bridge that gap, interference from some powerful individuals at the national and county levels led to the collapse of the project.

“The idea to preserve vegetables, process potatoes and pyrethrum as well as milk was an idea to transform the county’s economic potential,” says Mr Wainaina.

“We were told not to touch potatoes, meaning that we could not extract starch from them to make ethanol and turn the peels into organic fertiliser. It was hard,” Mr Wainaina says of the Kanu days.

But in 2008, the company came back to life, processing over 1,000 kilogrammes of pyrethrum.

Detectives visited

It was around this time that the problems re-emerged when detectives visited the plant.

“When the officers came to the plant, they did not find me. But they would later call to tell me that I was required to report the following day to their Nairobi headquarters without fail. Of course you know what it means when you fail to report as directed by such people.”

“When I got to the offices together with my colleagues, we were told that we were processing pyrethrum without permission, which amounted to sabotaging the government,” he says.

But Mr Wainaina says he had all the required documentation as per the Pyrethrum Act of 1965. According to the Act, the Minister for Agriculture had the powers to allow pyrethrum extraction through written approval.

Their problems compounded in 2012 when they were served a letter from the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission (EACC) indicating that the 25 acres on which the plant stands was acquired illegally.

This, according to Mr Wainaina, is despite getting the land on a freehold from the Settlement Fund Trustee.

EACC would go on to file the land recovery case at the High Court in Nakuru, claiming the land was a leasehold under the Ministry of Agriculture. The recovery case would later be transferred to an Environment and Land Court in Nyahururu.

Even before the case could be heard and determined, the EACC filed a criminal case in the anti-corruption court in Nairobi.

In 2014, Mr Wainaina and two others were arrested and charged in court for fraud.

The anti-corruption court acquitted them in May this year after it was established that Midlands acquired the land lawfully.

Despite losing the fraud case, EACC is yet to withdraw the land recovery matter in Nyahururu.

As the shareholders await the outcome, their project is a limbo.